Closing the data skills gap

In this article, Keren Pakes, General Manager of the Bright Initiative, looks at how businesses can close the data skills gap.

The on and offline pages of Business Leader regularly feature a dazzling array of enterprises working across a range of industries. They are operating in a variety of markets and following their own distinct strategies, yet all are no doubt grappling with some common challenges. Data is increasingly one of these unifying factors, with businesses of all types seeking to effectively harness and apply the power of what has become the lifeblood of modern economies.

It’s an oft-quoted cliche that data is the new oil, but in actuality, we should be thinking of it more as the new water. The days of data merely being a commodity able to enhance business success have given way to an age of data as an essential requirement for doing business at all. Every business in every sector now relies on data in one form or another – whether it be the data generated through their own activity and interactions with customers or that which they access from external sources.

This external, or ‘alternative’ data is increasingly relied upon to drive decisions. For example, recent surveys have shown how important alternative data is to finance professionals in guiding investment strategies and understanding economic social and governance (ESG) issues. Unsurprisingly, this reliance is driving rapid growth in the market for data – with forecasts suggesting it will be a $103 billion industry by 2027.

People working in just about every industry will need to at the very least have a basic grasp of data skills to get by in this working reality. However, there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the UK has a long way to go in meeting employer’s data skills needs.

The data skills gap

The Government last year published a milestone report that quantified the scale of the challenge that UK employers are facing in meeting data skills needs. Based on survey research among thousands of businesses, the report found data skills to be in high demand but supply limited. It estimated that almost half of employers are struggling to recruit to roles requiring data skills, with up to 234,000 vacancies sitting open.

In the face of the apparently limited supply of new talent to be recruited, it made the case for a push to upskill existing staff to plug the obvious gaps. Importantly, the need for data skills was not found to be restricted to specific roles. As the report states, “While not every worker needs to become a data scientist, everyone will need a basic level of data literacy to operate and thrive in increasingly ‘data-rich’ environments.”

Wisely, the UK Government is seeking to prepare the country to thrive in this data-driven environment through the National Data Strategy (NDS). Published in September 2020, the NDS outlines an ambitious plan for the UK to harness the power of data across every part of the economy and society. Built around missions to unlock the economic value of data and use it to transform public service delivery, the NDS places skills among its key enablers of success.

As a UK-owned online data collection platform, Bright Data has taken a strong interest in the NDS as part of the Forum that has been convened by the DCMS to help guide its delivery. Building on the work we already do with academic institutions around the world, much of our support has concentrated on data skills and education.

Through this work, it has quickly become clear that there are a number of major issues that need to be tackled. These include how the lack of awareness many people have about careers in data hampers them from seeking out relevant learning opportunities; the need to ensure that education courses and curricula at all levels meet industry needs; and the challenge of attracting people with the strongest grasp of data skills to become educators – particularly given the tech industry’s ability to pay much higher salaries than most education institutions.

Addressing these challenges

There are some obvious steps that can be taken in the face of these challenges. These included efforts to more effectively promote public understanding of the role data plays in society and the economy – and the career possibilities it presents; maintaining strong dialogue between educators and industry; and making sure that industry contributes to education programmes, including making skilled staff time available to teach and share insight with students. There are also lots of sources of support for employers to tap into in addressing their data skills needs – not least of which are the tools developed by the Data Skills Taskforce.

Key to all of these steps though is the active contribution of Government, education institutions and employers. Data is an all-encompassing force that flows through every part of modern society. Making sure we have the skills needed to effectively tap and use it needs to be just as holistic.